Warrick Wynne’s Poetry Pages

reading, writing and the connections

Refreshing Involvement

Autumn – Noel Beddoe
William Heinemann Australia, 1991
(ISBN 0 855614110, pb., 227 pp.$ -)

Lately I’ve begun to hear readers and critics express some impatience with the fashionable detachment male voices in Australian fiction have tended to adopt in recent years. Some readers too have found the post-structuralist ‘playing around’ with authorial voice, and the too conscious manipulation of the reader, too bloody clever by half! Such readers would enjoy Noel Beddoe’s Autumn, a book that, despite containing many of the kinds of limitations you might expect in a first novel, is a refreshingly direct and personal first person narrative that tells a story.

Charlie McFarlane, the narrator of this novel, is forced to confront himself and his old values when his marriage breaks up and he realises the futility of his life and job. Returning to his childhood territory, the Murrumbidgee country of New South Wales, MacFarlane can’t help but become involved in town life and town conflicts and is drawn slowly out of his depression into some truths about himself and his attitudes. It’s all told clearly and simply, the writing noticeably stronger, I think, when the novel leaves Sydney and turns to the evocative lakes and rivers of MacFarlane’s childhood:

I parked beneath tall gums, near to where willows grew out over the river, their fronds beating and bouncing on the surface of the racing water. It was cold, in the late afternoon in the wind of that mountain country, and the air was sharp down in my throat and lungs. I stood with my hands in my jacket pockets, and watched the rush of the deep lead-grey river water.

Through the character of McFarlane Beddoe explores the landscape and the characters who inhabit it. The small town community is affectionately described though it never becomes simply an escape. This town has its undercurrents of tension and violence too and McFarlane increasing involvement in the life of the town is part of the healing process of himself.

However, if part of this novel’s strength is its unpretentious directness of telling, it is also part of its limitations. Beddoe sometimes seems too intent on making the ‘big statement’ with scenes and, in particular, conversations, moving too neatly towards a conclusion; ‘The world’s a dangerous place, Charlie’ or ‘Your dream didn’t come true’. The big issues are here too; birth, sex, familiy life and death, all simplified and romanticised to various extents. More detailed is the thread exploring the narrator’s gradual renunciation of the male rituals and attitudes that helped destroy his marriage, or; what does it mean to be a man? He begins by repeating the customs of his youth, ‘I didn’t brush my teeth or shave, because you don’t before duck shooting’ but something has changed within him and he is forced to re-examine the male rites of passage that made him what he is, ‘Why did they teach me to shoot things?’ McFarlane, football hero, duck hunter, fisherman, fighter, has to learn to cry, and with the help of his fellow schoolteacher, the strong Nelly, he does come to a new understanding of himself. The disturbing thing is that the women, who McFarlane repeatedly describes in his protective way as ‘delicate’, ‘fragile’, ‘soft’, doe-like, ‘graceful’ or ‘dainty’, rarely act in a way that defies his vision of them and any intended irony is difficult to detect. Like the ducks that are hunted grimly outside town, women and children are often presented as passive victims of male pride or arrogance. Nevertheless, despite the sometimes awkward sounding ‘I remember’ that plague first person recollection-style narratives, Beddoe describes the physical side of these human relationships; the sexual encounters, the fighting and even death with a strength and unflinching honesty.

Autumn suffers from some of the awkwardness and ambition you might expect of first novels. However, the refreshingly direct narrative and the evocative and powerful descriptions are, at times, genuinely moving. Simply structured, almost confessional in tone, Autumn will be well received by those readers tired of the games some writers play.

Copyright – Warrick Wynne

This review originally appeared in The Australian Book Review.

Written by warrick

July 11, 2011 at 3:33 pm

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